As Arctic ice sheets continue to melt, Russia has rapidly positioned themselves to take advantage of new northern shipping lanes created by the thinning ice. Russia’s massive fleet of icebreakers — which dwarfs that of the United States and most of its allies combined — bolster six new and a number of other re-opened arctic military installations that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, in no uncertain terms, represent the future of the Russian economy. He reiterated this commitment in an address delivered as recently as this past March:
Not a single [other] country in the world has a nuclear icebreaker fleet. The Soviet Union used to have it, Russia has it, and we have plans to develop a powerful new-generation icebreaker fleet. We won’t threaten anybody, but, using our advantages, of a territorial nature in this case, we will ensure the security of Russia and its citizens. In this sense, the Arctic region is extremely important for Russia.”
The United States is slowly working toward fielding a new, state-of-the-art icebreaker, set to absorb many of the duties currently filled by America’s only two operational vessels. While some lawmakers see this billion-dollar investment as a chance to put the United States back into contention in the frigid north, this diesel vessel will do little to offset Russia’s advantage. Their icebreaker fleet alone consists of over 40 operational vessels, with 11 more in production and at least two that are nuclear powered. The United States may have the most powerful military in the world, but above 66.33 degrees north latitude, Russia is the force to be reckoned with.
This massive buildup of Russian power in the Arctic has led to an increase in U.S. Marine Corps training rotations in Norway, with U.K. forces now set to follow suit. These troop rotations, numbering in the low thousands in total, have fueled new rounds of posturing between Russian and Norwegian officials, but ultimately the troop presence in Norway is too small at any given time to represent any real threat to Russian interests. As much trouble as 700 U.S. Marines could cause, they don’t offer quite as threatening a presence on the horizon as one of America’s Nimitz class supercarriers sailing alongside some defensive escorts.
On Friday, the USS Harry S. Truman entered the Norwegian Sea in the Arctic Circle, marking the first time an American carrier has done so in nearly three decades. The ship’s massive presence was meant as an assurance to European allies that the United States could rapidly deliver supplies and military support via northern channels around Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom, while also serving as a reminder to Russian submarine forces — that have seen a rapid uptick in activity in the area recently — that American ships won’t be deterred by their presence.
Perhaps just as important as the message the Truman sends, this voyage also offers American sailors the opportunity to train for operations in the cold waters of the Arctic, where elements of a future conflict with Russia would inevitably play out.
“I’d wager that the carrier strike group command has never participated in this kind of exercise in that area, and if he has it hasn’t been since he was an ensign,” Dr. Daniel Goure, a defense expert and senior vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank said of the Truman’s voyage into Arctic waters. “It’s not just about training for this kind of warfare but specifically training the location that we may have to fight,” he said. “So you are going to see more large-scale training in the Mediterranean, training in the Arctic and training in the western Pacific.”
Goure’s assessment was supported by a statement made by the Truman’s commanding officer, Capt. Nick Dienna, who said, “Despite the arduous weather and sea conditions, these men and women are demonstrating this ship can bring a full spectrum of capabilities to bear anywhere in the world.”